The Exquisite belongs to a rare class of literary fiction that puts a premium on mood while delivering a surprisingly compelling read. The novel's back cover declares it "an East Village Noir," which vastly overstates the case: The Exquisite lacks the terse dialogue, spastic gunplay, and intricate plotting that are the hallmarks of the genre. Instead, we're presented with an unusual friendship between a hapless thief named Henry and Mr. Kindt, an older gentleman with a passion for herring who may be a crime boss, a descendant of the subject of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson, or both.
The Exquisite By Laird Hunt
Coffee House Press, 246 pp., $14.95 paper
While The Exquisite doesn't have a plot per se, its narrative thrust is stronger than Paul Auster's noir-ish New York Trilogy or André Breton's ode to the nocturnal, Nadja. And it possesses a cast of characters right out of a David Lynch film. Perhaps Hunt's greatest accomplishment here is that a book populated with contortionist twins and a tattoo artist named Tulip comes off as spooky rather than silly. Hunt's novel has atmosphere, and plenty of it. Indeed, the moody short movie on the author's website (lairdhunt.net) suggests that a competent director could craft a credible film noir out of Henry's nighttime rambles, which take him "[d]own dark, windswept hallways, across empty public spaces, past vanished water-tasting stations and stopped-up springs, along oily waterways littered with rusting barges and sleeping gulls, down abandoned subway tunnels and the sparking guts of disused power stations."
Henry tells us he used to be someone, "then that stopped," but his meaning isn't altogether clear. The Exquisite's secondary story lineset in a hospitalsuggests Henry might literally be the shadow of his former self. While it never becomes clear whether these scenes precede, follow, or coincide with the main story, it's a hell of a lot of fun to puzzle through.